December 16, 2014

Ghosts of Christmas Songs Past

by Gary Fearon, Creative Director, Southern Writers Magazine

Shopping malls and radio stations once again are filling the air with the familiar sounds of the season. Having heard these Christmas classics countless times every December, we can hum, if not sing, along with most of them. I thought today we'd pay a little holiday homage to the talented writers who gave us these chestnuts.

Actor/musical arranger Mel Torme wrote over 250 songs in his lifetime, some of which became jazz standards. But the one tune most tuned into was the biggest Christmas hit of the 20th century, co-written with lyricist Robert Wells. Torme said this was never one of his favorites. Maybe he considered it a throwaway because the entire song was written in just 40 minutes.

A fair number of Christmas songs come from movies. Irving Berlin's WHITE CHRISTMAS (1940) was included in the Bing Crosby film Holiday Inn. (Ironically, it was written in a hotel room.)  "White Christmas" has, of course, been recorded by many other artists. For a radio station morning show I once edited together Bing Crosby's lush version with Elvis Presley's doo-woppy rendition to create "The King and Bing." You wouldn't want to hear it.

By the way, among Irving Berlin's other claims to fame are "Puttin' on the Ritz" and "God Bless America".

This is from the same duo who gave the world "The Trolley Song".  Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin were composers for stage and screen musicals, best known for Meet Me in St Louis, starring Judy Garland.

This is from another film, Bob Hope's The Lemon Drop Kid. It was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, whose hits also include Doris Day's "Que Sera Sera" and the "Bonanza" TV theme. For trivia buffs, Livingston's record executive brother created Bozo the Clown and signed The Beatles to Capitol Records.

IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A LOT LIKE CHRISTMAS (1951) Meredith Wilson, yet another writer for musicals. His most successful, The Music Man, includes songs that recall the fanciful lilt of this holiday hit (think "Gary, Indiana").

THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY (1941) by Katherine Kennicott Davis. Not one of my favorites, but I gained some appreciation for it when I learned that this teacher and choir director sought to write a piece that could be arranged with voices to emulate the sound of a drum rhythm. It earned a little more respect when I discovered that it was a beloved choice of the legendary Trapp Family from Austria, who recorded it in 1955.

World War II captain Johnny Marks gave us no less than three Christmas classics: RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1949), ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE (1958) and A HOLLY JOLLY CHRISTMAS (1964). "Rudolph," incidentally, was based on a story written by Marks' brother-in-law as a promotional piece for retail store Montgomery Ward.

Veteran record producer David Foster (Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna) wrote this comparatively newer classic with Linda Thompson (yes, one-time Elvis girlfriend). When Amy Grant recorded her hit version of it in 1992, she wrote a second verse of her own (the "As children we believed..." section).

TEXT ME MERRY CHRISTMAS (2014) This instant classic for modern times, sung by Straight No Chaser with Kristen Bell, was penned by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum (comedic songsters whose individual credits include the Tony Awards, The Daily Show, and Sesame Street). With luck this clever new novelty song will put "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" out of its misery.

These are just a few of the composers we can tip our Santa hat to, and we didn't even mention carols like "Silent Night" and "We Three Kings".  Many of the sacred songs come from the 19th century or earlier, with indistinct European origins.

One interesting thing about the above list is how many of these Christmas classics were written by Jewish songwriters.  If they had stuck to the adage, "Write what you know," most of these songs would have never been written.

Feliz Navidad, y'all!

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